Mario Cuomo famously said, "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose."
Ever since he became president, it seems as if Obama has taken that message to heart. At times dishearteningly so.
But Steven Speilberg's Lincoln is a timely reminder of the power of words, of oratory, to shape the course of history, or, at the very least, to inspire a people.
As he gets ready for his second inaugural address on January 21, let us hope that the Barack Obama who enthralled the nation with his 2004 Democratic convention speech, who entered the history books with his Race speech in Philadelphia in 2008, and who, during the course of a long, hard first campaign, inspired the country with his bewitching language and oratory, shows up on that day.
That magical Obama last appeared at Grant Park in Chicago the day he won the 2008 election. On that historic night he told the story of America through the story of Ann Nixon Cooper, a 106-year-old black woman. Listen to what he said on that night:
She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons -- because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.
And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America -- the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.
At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.
When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.
When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.
She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.
A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.
Then, that eloquent Obama, the poet-philosopher, disappeared from public view. It is easy to understand why. Mocked endlessly by his opponents for his "empty" rhetoric and lofty ambitions, shaken by the prospect of fiscal ruin and an imploding economy, dismayed by the immovability of a dysfunctional Congress, perhaps even intimidated by the unrealistic expectations of his supporters, a new Obama emerged -- moderate, cautious, wonkish, a man no longer looking to the stars for guidance. Starting with his first inaugural address, his speeches lost their magic. Instead, they reflected his new caution and became a prosaic laundry list of what the country needed to do to get itself out of "the mess that we've inherited."
It was like watching Muhammad Ali fight with both hands tied behind his back. An Ali without his rope-a-dope tactic, without his lightening jabs and dazzling footwork, and most of all, without his trademark wit and humor. In other words, an Ali who was the anti-Ali. And so the most brilliant orator of his generation, the man who had penned the lovely, thoughtful memoir, Dreams from my Father, began to sound like the guy trying to sell you a new vacuum cleaner.
It showed in the polls. It showed in the approval ratings. Don't get me wrong -- the economy was such as mess, his enemies so implacable in their resolution to make him a one-term president, his challenges so great -- that no speech, however magnificent, was going to restore the luster he had when he first took office. But this is also true: At a time when the country was reeling from high unemployment and the collapse of the financial and housing markets, and being torn asunder by the health care debate, at a time when we were buried under the dull bleakness of reality, perhaps that was the moment when we most needed poetry.
Remember these lines from William Carlos Williams' Asphodel?
It is difficult to get the news from poems
Yet men die miserably each day
For lack of what is found there
In 2008 we were a country divided between Red States and Blue States, destroyed by recklessness of irresponsible tax cuts and other acts of public thievery that put us on the cusp of a Great Recession, weary after almost a decade of war and occupation. And just then, a young black man with an improbable name and an even more improbable resume, gathered us around the national campfire and told us a story. It was a long and complicated story and he did us the favor of not condescending to us by making it less complicated. But if you wanted to boil the story down to a few words, it was this: Yes We Can.
Yes We Can bridge the divides that separate us. Yes We Can put our country back on the road to fiscal sanity. Yes We Can take care of our sick and weak and powerless, and the very old and the very young. Yes We Can turn our backs on 200 years of ignoble history and elect our first non-white president.
Enough of us believed the storyteller and the story. Enough of us were captivated by Obama's vision, by the power of his eloquence, to see America in the same shimmering way that he did.
Toward the end of a listless second campaign, we caught occasional glimpses of the old Obama. Perhaps a second term will free him of the self-consciousness he has clearly felt during his first. Perhaps it will allow him to return to his truest instincts--to inspire, to lead, to tell us the story of who we are. And who we can be.
A memorable, lofty, aspirational second inaugural address would be a great place to begin.